The costly college years: how much do students need to get by?

With a survey by the Credit Union putting monthly costs and bills for students at €950, third level is all about making meagre resources go further

 Rent is the biggest ongoing cost for students. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Rent is the biggest ongoing cost for students. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien


Suddenly there are bills. The presses are empty and no one seems to be filling them. What’s going on?

Learning to manage money takes skill. College is expensive, with students effectively out of the workplace, and reliant on part-time work, parental help and grants or scholarships.

According to a survey just released by the Irish League of Credit Unions, annual costs for students have increased this year. Those who live at home can expect to spend €516 a month on daily expenses, up from €484 in 2011. Parents on average contribute €421 a month. Students who move out need to budget a lot more: the Credit Union suggests rent and bills bring the monthly cost to €950.

These figures are slightly more than those reckoned by the Dublin Institute of Technology’s most recent Campus Life survey on the cost of college (see panel, right).

Unsurprisingly, most students who can stay at home, will stay at home. Some deliberately choose a college that’s closeby, even if it isn’t their ideal choice. Others will make a long daily commute, even if it means travelling the guts of four hours a day from Dunshauglin in Co Meath to UCD or from Kildare to DCU.

A particularly long commute could cost €150 per month, or about half what you might shell out in rent, but you won’t have to pay bills or buy as much food.

Rent is the single biggest ongoing cost. The national average is €343 per month, according to the Credit Union survey - although this average is skewed upwards by higher rent in Dublin, where an accommodation shortage has raised prices by 4.5 per cent in the past year. The average rent in Dublin, according to a rental report, is about €348. On the other hand, students living in Dublin have a greater choice of accommodation, particularly if they’re attending a city centre college (Trinity and DIT).

Transport costs have also risen. The monthly student short-hop ticket is up by €6. And to make things even more complicated, the March 2013 Consumer Price Index showed a 4.5 per cent increase in the cost of education, mainly due to rises in the student registration fee, which is €2,500. Be warned: this will jumpt to €2,750 in 2014 and €3,000 in 2015, and unless you are on a maintenance grant, you can either pay the charge or be booted out of college.

Accommodation costs, and the general cost of living, are lower in Cork, Galway, Limerick, and Waterford.

Jobs are still hard to come by, although persistent students are still managing to find them.

Anecdotal reports suggest employers are becoming less flexible than some students need; working to pay for college defeats the purpose if you can’t manage to attend lectures.

“Students should not work more than 15 hours a week, if possible, to avoid negatively affecting study,” says Deirdre Moloney, a student advice centre manager in DCU. “If they have trouble securing work, we might advise them to visit the careers service to improve their CV, or discuss what the most appropriate clothes to wear when dropping it in to shops.”

Students who run into financial difficulty can apply to their college’s student assistance fund. The sums aren’t great – DCU estimates applicants get an average of €500 from the fund per semester – the money can be used to help cover the cost of expenses, including rent, bills, childcare, compulsory study abroad and medical bills. In more severe cases, the Saint Vincent de Paul has an education grant for limited relief.

About 20 per cent of students drop out of college. Evidence suggests students who score a high number of CAO points are more likely to stay the course, but financial pressure inevitably forces some to leave. If you can’t pay the college registration fee in first year, three or four years of college are likely to be a strain.

The student grant is means tested and students whose parents have fewer than four children, and who earn no more than €39,875 a year, qualify for full maintenance, which includes a monthly payment and covers the full cost of the college registration fee. Just over 30 per cent of students are eligible for this assistance.


Work out your bigger expenses, and then start reducing them. It makes a difference. How much are you spending on gas and electricity? Can you get a cheaper provider? Check out a list of service providers on comparison site And what about your mobile phone bill? If you are shelling out €60 or more per month, you are paying too much – time to switch. provides useful bill comparisons.

Try to avoid buying textbooks, and get what you can from the library or the college’s second hand bookshop

Aldi and Lidl really are the cheapest of the cheap when it comes to the main supermarkets. They are particularly good for fruit and veg, canned foods and condiments, and deli items for lunch. Cheaper still are the new, improved, and significantly less grotty euro shops that are popping up around Ireland, where you will find some recognisable household brand names at very pleasing prices.

You’ll also find good value at fruit and veg stalls and in ethnic food stores. As an example of the bargains you’ll find in Asian food shops: whereas three or four chillies for the most beloved food of the student gods, chilli con carne, will set you back around €1 in one of the big supermarkets, you can buy a massive bag of them in an Asian food store and freeze them – you’ll easily have enough to last the year. A tin of tomatoes is your most reliable kitchen staple: see if you can buy them in bulk. If you buy in a supermarket, stick to own brand for big savings. Remember: eating out is a treat, not your staple dinner.

Open a credit union account. Even if you only put in a small amount of money each month, credit union customers can borrow up to three times what they have saved, and credit unions provide flexible loan terms. It may be an extremely useful source of funds for summer travel, or simply to help cover unexpected costs. Some credit unions may will even lend smaller amounts, such as €100-200, in emergencies.

On the other hand, be careful of loans. Even if the banks are prepared to give you one, they’re not free money, and should not be taken lightly. Credit cards are a terrible idea, as even people in full-time jobs on the average industrial wage struggle to pay off a €1,000 debt. A Visa Debit or a Moneybookers card will still allow you to book tickets or flights.

Your student card is your best friend. Show it everywhere you go, bearing in mind that some shops may not advertise the 10 per cent discount. provides a list of companies that offer student discounts. Ten per cent (or sometimes more) adds up to big savings over the course of a college year. Also, keep an eye out for any coupons, and use them.

Useful resources
If you’re having trouble with money, talk to a student adviser or the Students’ Union welfare officer. It might seem hopeless, but there may be a workable solution. Useful websites include,, and

Living in squalor was once seen as a rite of passage for students. The grottiest flat, the dampest bedsit, and the dingiest hovel were perfectly adequate for the first years away from home.

No more. Bedsits are now banned and landlords are required to adhere to certain minimum standards. College accommodation offices will usually only recommend landlords who, at the very least, are registered with the Private Residential Tenancies Board.

Price is perhaps the key factor for students making their choice. John O’Rourke, General Manager of Campus Life Services at the University of Limerick, advises that students need to be comfortable with their choice of accommodation. “This will be your home from home for the first year of college, so if it doesn’t feel right, you may not be happy there – keep looking.”

On campus
“This is the preferred option for first years now,” O’Rourke. “On-campus accommodation has also become much more widely available as the number of units built in universities grew over the past decade. Our on-campus allocation was fully booked in advance of the CAO, but we will open a waiting list this morning.” Most institutes of technology do not offer on-campus accommodation.

College accommodation offices keep a list of available off-campus houses and apartments, and this is well worth checking out. Students should ensure they have fully inspected the property before signing a lease agreement and paying a deposit. Always get a receipt. It is also a good idea to bring a parent, or older friend or relative with you when looking at potential places. The downside is that first years may have less control over who they live with – but a few odd or difficult housemates is a useful learning experience.

living with a host family where breakfast and dinner are provided – have fallen out of favour since their 1990s heyday. Don’t rule them out: students in digs retain the comforts of home but take a step closer to independence. They can be the perfect transition option, with students often choosing to move into independent accommodation in second year. Digs also provide peace of mind for worried parents. And those that are available are very competitively priced. Do make sure that the rules are agreed before moving in. Is there a curfew? Can you bring friends home?
Staying at home
The only realistic option for a lot of cash-strapped students and their families. More appealing for students who live within 40 minutes of campus; less appealing if you’re commute is more than two hours a day. Conflict can arise easily, with students feeling they are adults, while parents point out their rules are law under their roof. Set ground rules for what both parties expect.

On campus costs
Living on campus can be more expensive than the off-campus option, but can be a particularly appealing option to first year students as they seek to settle down in college. Student villages can be an excellent place to make new friends, while on-campus security provides extra peace of mind.

Trinity College: €4,074 for a standard single room (Sept 18-May 9), plus €360 for utilities.
UCD: €4,470 per year for Belgrove and Merville on-campus accommodation plus 431 for utilities and insurance.
University of Limerick: €4550 for Cappavilla, Thomond, Dromroe, including utilities.
NUI Galway: €3,990 per year for Gort na Coiribe plus €300 booking deposit and €480 for utilities.
UCC: €4,680 for a single room in Victoria Lodge, excluding utilities.

*All prices correct as of July 2010


“I had no accommodation booked before the CAO results came out. I got my first choice – a place on the medicine course at NUI Galway. I went straight to Galway with my parents to find a place to live.

“I’m from Athlone, and it’s not too far to Galway. Commuting was an option, but I knew I didn’t want to spend over two hours a day on the road, missing out on the social life in the evenings to catch a bus home, and up at the crack of dawn to make it in for early lectures.

“Digs were another option, and they can be a good transition option for first years out of home for the first time, but it barely crossed my mind. I was panicked and worried I wouldn’t find a place.

“A number of people cancelled their prebooked accommodation that day, so spaces did arise in Galway. I got one of the cancelled spaces in in Gort na Coirbe, which is special student accommodation about 10 minutes from the university.

“There are two other student villages nearby, and Galway itself is heavily influenced by students. I love this town: it is so friendly and has a great social scene.

“I’ve been very lucky in that I have always got on well with my housemates while I also love that I can pop home whenever I like, and I’ve taken advantage of that sometimes! I’m really happy with the choices I made.”

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